International Women’s Day 2019 coincides with the 25th anniversary of a revolution that is unfinished – a revolution that symbolises not only all the aspirations of Women’s Day year after year, but also provides a specific roadmap for achieving them.
In 1994, 179 governments came together in Cairo to agree, for the very first time, that sexual and reproductive health and rights are the cornerstone of global development.
That decision, at the International Conference on Population and Development, recognized that when people are empowered to make their own choices about reproduction – free of force, coercion and fear – the whole world prospers.
Despite this landmark agreement, millions of women and girls have yet to see these promises fulfilled.
In developing regions, some 214 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not able to use safe and effective family planning methods. And every day, about 830 women die from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth.
Lack of information, poor access to health services and lack of available contraceptives all play a role as millions of girls and women slip through the cracks.
Impoverished health systems also leave women without antenatal care and safe delivery services. Unintended pregnancies push girls from school and women from the workforce. Gender-based violence and harmful practices such as child marriage are an assault on women and girl’s rights and autonomy – with significant consequences for their health and ability to make their own reproductive choices.
Sexual and reproductive health. Gender equality. Rights and choice. All of these are enshrined in the International Conference on population and Development (IPCD), and all of these are embedded as well across the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Indeed, without fulfilling ICPD we cannot fulfill the SDGs.
And all of these link directly with both the theme of International Women’s Day – ‘Think equal, build smart, innovate for change’ – as well as the focus of next week’s annual deliberations at the UN Commission on the Status of Women: ‘Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.’
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Getting our priorities right
To bring about strategic and innovative investments in gender equality and social protection, we need to prioritise sexual and reproductive health under universal health coverage. It all begins with this basic commitment by governments and policymakers, as well as partnerships with the private sector and civil society at large, through which diverse solutions can be found.
We need services that are accessible and responsive, including sexual and reproductive health services. A multisectoral response to support victims and survivors of violence is also key. And we need social protection systems that recognize, redistribute and support women’s reproductive role and choices – including public provision of childcare and other safety nets that enable women to earn a living.
We can already point to many examples across our region.
Midwifery as a profession is being elevated in many countries. Cadres of midwives are being trained and deployed to where they’re needed most, like the mountainous stretches of Afghanistan or the densely-packed Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, , saving the lives of women and their babies by helping to ensure safer pregnancies and childbirth.
Cambodia and Lao People’s Democratic Republic, to name just two countries, have significantly expanded their investment in modern contraceptives to meet unmet need for family planning, strengthening supply chain logistics to reach remotely located populations.
The private sector – garment factories, for example – has also begun to provide family planning information and services to employees, strengthening women’s ability to balance life and work.
In disaster-prone countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, critical health infrastructure including hospitals and birth centres damaged by earthquakes and other crises are being rebuilt stronger, incorporating innovative technology and lessons learnt to ensure greater resilience in the future.
Mobile apps in countries like the Maldives and Myanmar are providing critical and accurate information on sex and sexuality to young people to empower them to make responsible and safe choices, strengthening their foundations for life and love.
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And more and more countries across Asia-Pacific are conducting comprehensive surveys to measure the extent of violence against women, resulting in robust data that are then used by governments to bring about legislation to address this scourge.
These are encouraging instances, and there are many more besides. But let’s also be frank in acknowledging the significant pushback against rights and choice that we are witnessing at a time of rising conservatism in Asia-Pacific and globally – even in countries that have long been ICPD champions.
That’s why we need a movement like #SheDecides, which began just two years ago to resist the pushback on sexual and reproductive health. This movement has grown rapidly to amplify the voices of women and girls, and has reached out as well to men and boys to involve everyone in the unfinished revolution that is ICPD.
That’s why we’re issuing a call to governments, UN agencies, women’s and youth groups, and other partners to gather at a summit in Nairobi in November - to recommit to the transformation that began a quarter-century ago and which must be accelerated all the more.
Safeguarding rights and choice, strengthening social protection and achieving genuine gender equality means renewing our collective promises this International Women’s Day, converting them into concrete action, and securing the future for women and girls everywhere.